The First Tee – WGC HSBC Championship

Adam Daly
By Adam Daly October 28, 2019 16:40

The First Tee – WGC HSBC Championship

This Week

After Tiger tied the wins record last week (in a wonky event thanks to the piss-poor weather), the Tour carries that momentum into the WGC-HSBC Championship, held at Sheshan Golf Club in Shanghai, China. This is a short-field, no-cut event so as always there’s a premium on birdie-making over position points; there is also no ShotLink. Free Hong Kong.

The Course

Sheshan is a par-72 of average length, playing just over 7200 yards, but the course is actually deceptively long: five of the ten par-4s play outside of 450 yards, all four par-3s are 200+ yards, and one of the par-5s is just a kiss over 600. Not coincidentally, all of those holes listed (10 of them!) play above par; golfers will need to score on the other three par-5s and the very short par-4s (three below 400 yards) to have any hope this week.

Scoring at Sheshan – which has hosted this event as a WGC every year since 2008 except for 2012 – ranges from the low double digits (Bubba in 2015 at -11, Rose and Xander last year at -14) all the way into the -20s (DJ in 2014, Hideki in 2017); weather can have an impact, as demonstrated by the huge variance in winning scores.

Off the tee, golfers will be hitting into paspalum fairways of average width, but the undulating fairways offer some added distance thanks to roll-out. That makes it tougher to position the ball, but the extra distance is so necessary given the length of the course. Only ~58% of fairways are hit on average here, and the possible repercussions for a missed fairway include creeks, fairway bunkers and ginko trees; the rough is long but doesn’t grab at the ball the way North American grasses can, so landing in the first cut is fine.

Typically the greens are hit at a solid rate here – 65% or better in four of the past six years – but if the weather gets a little rough or there’s too much heat, that drops tremendously: just 57% last year and 56% in 2015. The greens are usually over-watered to counteract the heat which is why they (normally) get hit at an above-average clip, which is good given the greens are small. The bentgrass greens slope away from the pin on a number of holes and have some undulation, but in general this is one of the easier courses to putt at.

A missed green here means landing into some gnarly rough or some deep greenside bunkers, which has led to some incredibly poor scrambling numbers over the years: the course has ranked fourth-toughest in 2019 and 2018, and sixth-toughest in 2015. To hit those numbers on an easier course in terms of putting says a lot about how punitive missing the greens can be.

Comparable courses/events:

Nine Bridges (The CJ Cup) – The creeping bentgrass at Nine Bridges is pretty similar to the paspalum found in the fairways here, and the greens are very similar when considering undulation/sloping. Scoring is pretty close (although this isn’t yet clear given the small sample of Nine Bridges) and they’re both par-72s where the par-5s are key and scrambling is hard.

Bay Hill Club & Lodge (Arnold Palmer Invitational) – Scrambling is a big factor at both thanks to the sloping of the greens, and both courses are long par-72s. The fairways at both courses offer some added distance thanks to undulation that rolls the ball out, but approach angles at both courses aren’t easy. Some leaderboard overlap at the top (Rory, Rose, Stenson, Molinari are primary examples, although cream usually rises to the top).

 

STATS

The Strokes Gained stats to focus on in order (not including Tee to Green):

  • Approach
  • Off the Tee
  • Putting
  • Around the Green

Counting stats to focus on in order:

  • Approach Shots : 175-200 Yards
  • Scrambling %
  • Birdie or Better %
  • Par-4 Scoring
  • Par-5 Birdie or Better %

 

Top-Tier Golfers

Sungjae Im ($9500): Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Sungjae Im has been lights-out since the season turned over: T19 at the Greenbriar, solo second at Sanderson Farms, a win in Korea (although in a terrible field) and a T3 last week are the highlights, and he also made the cut at the Safeway (finishing T49). Im has never played the WGC-HSBC before so there’s no course history to look at, but after entering 2019 as the 98th-best in the world (per OWGR), Im is now the 34th-ranked golfer and he had no course history anywhere on the PGA Tour – so really, how much does that matter for Im?

The main concern with the young Korean is his approach play, as last year he only ranked 94th in SG: Approach; his rankings in the other categories were much better (33rd off the tee, 23rd around the green and 39th putting) which makes his middling approach play stand out as a negative. He still managed to hit 67% of greens in regulation and was the 21st-best golfer relative to par when approaching outside 200 yards.

Im scrambled tremendously well, a combo of his good play around the green and good putting, and his only poor spot was on par-3s where he ranked T53 in scoring (3.03) and 82nd in BoB% (13.84%). Beyond that, he was a sparkling 23rd in par-4 scoring and sixth in par-5 scoring, which is great for a par-72 course. His price tag this week is a bit hefty (10th-highest) given it’s a WGC, but he projects very well for this course.

Hideki Matsuyama ($11100): After a solo second at the Zozo and a T3 at the CJ Cup the past two weeks, Hideki will probably see a good chunk of ownership even as the second-highest priced golfer this week, but he’s worth it; Hideki has won here (2016) and fits basically every statistical category highlighted:

  • 3rd in SG: Tee to Green / 12th in Scoring Average
  • 5th in SG: Approach / 16th in Approaches Outside 200 Yards
  • 12th in Scrambling (even with his horrible putting!)
  • 16th in Par-5 Birdie or Better % / 9th in overall Birdie or Better %

You know exactly what you’re getting with Hideki, which means it could all go wrong on the greens, but in a no-cut event he’s guaranteed four full rounds to figure it out.

 

Value Golfer (below $8000)

Hao-Tong Li ($7400): Hao-Tong has some history here with finishes of 11th, 50th, 63rd, 7th and 35th over the past five years, and although he’s had an up-and-down year of golf, he finished T20 or better in the three WGC events he played and finished solo fourth at the China Open back in May. He is coming off two straight missed cuts, but the Italian Open and Open de Espana are very different events from this one so the concern is negated a bit.

Last season on the PGA, Li only played 28 measured rounds so he doesn’t show up in any official statistics, but he flashed in some key categories like proximity from outside 200 yards (33rd) and one-putt percentage (16th). His tracked rounds mostly came on tougher courses – WGCs, the Texas Open, the PLAYERS and the Arnold Palmer were the only non-major North American events he played – so seeing that he hit only 62.28% of greens in regulation isn’t much of a concern; ditto his poor scrambling percentage as his 110th-ranking came on only 69 (nice) missed greens.

Judging by the larger sample of his Euro play last year paints a different, better picture:

  • 10th in Par-5 Scoring
  • 5th in Birdies/Round
  • 31st in SG: Tee to Green
  • 11th in Stroke Average

At only $7400 in a no-cut event, Hao-Tong Li is a steal.

Adam Hadwin ($7500): The Canadian has only played this event twice, finishing 30th and 65th the past two years, but he’s got some good recent form (41-T4-2 since fall turned over) and is already on that side of the world after playing the Zozo last week.

Last year was an iffy one for Hadwin (statistically, at least) as he ranked a dismal 104th from tee to green, thanks in part to poor approach play (108th in SG: APP) and downright bad play around the greens (161st in SG: ARG). Even still, he hit 67.5% of greens in regulation and gained the 75th-most strokes total thanks to his strong putting.

Even in a down year, Hadwin still shined brightly in some key categories (par-5 BoB%, approaches outside 200 yards, overall BoB%) and in the tiny sample of the 2020 season he’s improved his approach (+1.53, 3rd) game. While that’s over only eight rounds, it points to Hadwin continuing the upward trend he started near the end of last season; with “god-like” putting and good long irons, Hadwin should be in a great spot this week.

 

You can follow me on Twitter @adalyfrey and good luck this week!

Adam Daly
By Adam Daly October 28, 2019 16:40

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